The door closed behind Louis and Rochefort, leaving Treville and three of his musketeers alone in the audience chamber. The King's words still stung. "I'm disappointed. Your musketeers have let me down again." Treville let out a long breath and turned to face his men. He looked unsure of what to say, anger warring with some other emotion on his face. He pursed his lips and gave a slight shake of his head. His voice was surprisingly measured when he addressed them.
"The King is right. We lost this mission the moment things got out of control at the market," Treville paused, scanning the faces of his men. Athos as always wore a mask of inscrutable calm, his clenched jaw the only sign that he might be disturbed at all. D'Artagnan shifted nervously beside Athos, cocking his head with an urgent gaze that indicated he clearly expected their leader to speak for them. Aramis's behavior was the most telling of all – the typically outspoken marksman simply placed a hand to his hip and looked down, obscuring his face behind the brim of his hat.
"Really? None of you have anything to say?" Treville felt his anger rising. These were his best men, loyal to a fault and he knew they took no failure lightly. But there was obviously some missing piece that they were not sharing with him. Angry, Treville stepped up to Athos, inches from the swordsman's face. "Your failure at the market led to the death of five innocent people, loss of the explosive powder, and serious injury to a fellow musketeer. It's only by the grace of God that the crossbow bolt didn't shatter Porthos's leg. So, tell me something that will make me understand how you could have let this happen?" Treville stood his ground, nose to nose with Athos. He heard a sigh from his left and realized that Aramis was about to speak when Athos pre-empted him.
"Our positioning wasn't right in the square," Athos said calmly, "and there were more guards with Balthazar than we anticipated. There was nothing we could have done."
"Nothing," Treville breathed. He took a step back and ran a hand through his hair, "Nothing?" Voice rising, he gestured toward Aramis, "With the best marksman in all of Paris in the perfect position for an ambush and you tell me you could do nothing?" Treville spun on Aramis, bringing down his wrath toward the marksman, "What the hell happened!" he shouted.
Aramis finally raised his head but could not hold Treville's blazing stare. With a slight shake of his head he said softly, "I didn't have a shot." Aramis's jaw worked as if he wished to say more, yet he held his peace.
Enraged, Treville took another step toward Aramis, "How is that even possible?" he shouted. Aramis shied away from Treville's overwhelming presence, turning his head away but not before Treville could see the fear and sorrow in his gaze. Treville raised a hand to grab the marksman by the doublet, force him to look at him, but a firm grip arrested him mid-motion.
"He said he did not have a shot," Athos said with deadly calm. His voice was soft but his tone warned Treville to stop pressing. Athos had stepped in to him and Treville turned to face a steely gaze with a glint of danger. Ever protective of his friends, Treville knew how fierce Athos could be but was taken aback to find Athos's eyes full of warning toward him. Athos continued before Treville could speak.
"This was my mission to command and I accept the failure," he said calmly, "You must trust me that I will address this with my men. Your anger, however deserved, does nothing to help the situation," Athos said, arching an eyebrow. Treville pursed his lips, his desire to continue pressing his point at odds with Athos's analysis of the situation. The swordsman was right but his insubordination galled him.
Before the situation could escalate, the doors to the audience chamber swung open. Athos immediately dropped Treville's arm and took a small step backward, assuming a neutral stance while both Aramis and D'Artagnan instinctively straightened to attention. It was doubtful anyone entering the room would have noticed the tension between the men. No need to share their problems outside of the regiment.
Rochefort entered, flanked by two red guards. His false smile not reaching his eyes.
"Treville," he said, the name slipping from his lips as if it had a foul taste, "I'm so glad you decided to dally here instead of getting back to your post. The Queen is to travel to the chapel at Fontainebleau and the King has allowed the Musketeers the chance to redeem themselves by accompanying her."
"When?" was Treville's clipped reply.
"Immediately," Rochefort smiled, "The trip has been planned since the Dauphin fell so ill. It was to be a prayer for God's intercession, but now it will be a joyful trip of thanksgiving for the Dauphin's recovering health."
"Why was I not informed of the Queen's travel plans before now?" Treville asked, his soldier's discipline the only thing keeping his temper in check.
"My dear Captain," Rochefort replied, "You were preoccupied with that debacle you and your musketeers orchestrated to retrieve the cipher. It must have slipped past you," Treville started to speak but Rochefort raised a hand and continued, "No matter, Captain," he smiled, "my red guards are already provisioned to provide escort. Perhaps you and your men should return to your garrison until the King has a mission that you might be able to achieve more successfully."
"My men will ride with the Queen," Treville said flatly, not trusting himself to say more.
"As you wish, but we leave on the hour," Rochefort gave a slight nod to the captain before leaving the room with the same flourish he had entered.
"This is impossible!" D'Artagnan blurted out as soon as the door closed, "How are we supposed to provision with less than an hour's notice."
"He's baiting us, D'Artagnan," Treville said calmly, "But we will not allow it. Athos, Aramis," he said, stepping toward the two men, "You will ride out with the Queen. I don't trust her with just the red guard," both men gave a dip of their heads, acknowledging the order. Before D'Artagnan could protest, Treville turned to him, "D'Artagnan ride to the garrison and provision an escort of 8 men to ride with you. You will lead them to meet up with the procession, hopefully before they get too far into the forest. I'll talk to the King. Get him to delay the Queen's departure. Get moving," he finished, turning on his heel to leave by the same doors as Rochefort. Treville put a hand to the door and the paused, turning to look at the three men.
"I have an uneasy feeling about this. Stay sharp," he said, before turning and exiting the room. As soon as the door closed, the Musketeers took a collective breath. Things were moving rapidly and this might be the only chance they had to regroup. They converged in a small circle, the tensions of a few minutes earlier forgotten.
"I don't like any of this," Aramis said, lips pursed, hands on hips. The marksman looked ready for a fight.
"It reeks of another attempt by Rochefort to discredit the musketeers," Athos agreed, "We cannot let that happen."
"I don't like the idea of the two of you riding out alone with the red guard," D'Artagnan added, "Not if Rochefort is up to something."
"We are not going to let the Queen go unprotected!" Aramis replied, his brown eyes flashing, "No matter what the circumstances." Aramis shifted to take a step toward D'Artagnan but Athos smoothly intervened.
"Aramis," he said, his voice an odd mix of warning and empathy, "of course we will not. D'Artagnan's concerns are reasonable, but it is clear that we have orders and a duty to perform." Athos shifted his gaze to his protégé, "Get to the garrison and get provisioned. Make sure Giraud, Clemente, and Jobert are part of your complement. They will be good on your team." Athos clapped a hand on the young man's shoulder. "We are counting on you to join us quickly."
D'Artagnan nodded his head, lips set in a thin determined smile. Aramis stepped up to him and offered his hand.
"Apologies, mon ami," Aramis said, his eyes soft, "I've been on edge since yesterday." D'Artagnan took the offered hand then clasped Aramis shoulder.
"No apology needed," he smiled, "Just stay safe." Aramis gave a gracious dip of his head, acknowledging the request but of course, it was not a promise he could make.
D'Artagnan released Aramis and turned to leave but stopped and turned back.
"What am I to tell Porthos?" he asked pointedly, challenging the men to come up with an answer.
"He's injured," Aramis said, "A crossbow bolt to the leg is nothing he should be riding on. Tell him to stay put."
"Oh, I'm sure that will work," D'Artagnan said with a sarcastic smile.
"Tell him we said to be careful," Athos said flatly. Aramis started to protest, but Athos cut him off, "You know that there is no way he will stay behind. So, let's save precious time arguing about it."
"Great, thank you. You two are no help," D'Artagnan replied, "See you in a few hours," he said over his shoulder as he left.
"You know that Porthos should stay behind," Aramis grumbled at Athos's side.
"Yes," Athos answered, cocking his head to give Aramis a stare from beneath his hat, "But I also know that there is nothing that will keep him away if thinks the three of us are riding into danger. So, let's stop pretending we have any control over this and get ready to ride." Aramis clearly didn't like it, but Athos most certainly was right. He let the matter drop as they left for the kitchens to scavenge some food for the journey.
The first two hours of their journey toward Fontainebleau passed quietly, too quietly Athos thought considering he was riding with the most talkative person he knew. He and Aramis had been relegated to the rear of the procession, the red guards forming the main phalanx around the Queen's carriage. Inside with her majesty were the Governess with the Dauphin and Constance Bonacieux, the only one of the Queen's ladies to travel with her today. The trip was supposed to be short, just two nights at the summer palace with time spent at the chapel in thankful prayer for the health of the Dauphin. It was the kind of relaxed mission that normally would have had Aramis in fine spirits and Athos stoically bearing the brunt of Aramis's good-natured banter.
Quite uncharacteristically, their journey through the forest seemed to be having the opposite effect on his companion. Aramis had been silent for the better part of their ride. Not that Athos was overzealous for conversation, but Aramis's silence was a brooding one, his posture tense on his horse and his brown eyes troubled the few times he'd allowed himself to meet Athos's gaze. Athos was not generally one to pry, but something had been off with Aramis since the fight in the market square two days ago and concern for his friend was needling at him despite his attempt to stay aloof from his own emotions. Athos shook his head, wondering not for the first time in their years of friendship, how he had let this man get so under his skin. All three of his closest friends had burrowed far more deeply into his heart than he was comfortable with, but despite the years the depth of it still surprised him. Athos spared another glance to Aramis, his tension almost a palpable thing. Without the more openly warm Porthos here to worry at Aramis's distress, Athos knew the responsibility was his. None of them could bear to see a brother suffer.
"Do you want to tell me what is going on?" Athos asked, no preamble to his question other than having kicked up his horse to ride side by side with Aramis.
"Hmm?" came the distracted reply. Aramis gave Athos a questioning glance, not clear on what Athos had just said, "Going on with what?"
"You," Athos said dryly, "The only time you are this quiet is when you are unconscious."
Aramis let out a small chuckle, his lips turning up into a slight smile for the first time all day. "I'm fine, mon ami," he answered, the smile deepening on his lips but not reaching his eyes. "Just appreciating the ride."
"Lying does not suit you, Aramis," Athos answered quietly, "Nor do I deserve it."
Athos saw his statement have the desired impact, the false smile fell from Aramis's face and his brow furrowed with guilt and worry. Athos knew it was an underhanded trick to emotionally manipulate his kind-hearted brother this way, but two days of angry outbursts and silent brooding were enough. It was time to get to the heart of things.
"Tell me," Athos spoke gently but insisted nonetheless.
Aramis shifted in his saddle, scrubbing a hand over his face and letting out a deep exhale. Athos waited, allowing his friend the time to gather his words.
"At the market," Aramis finally said, eyes looking off in the distance, "it is not completely true that I did not have a clear shot." Aramis paused, licking his lips and taking a deep inhale. After another steadying breath, he continued, "When Balthazar first approached, I had him. But just before Tariq handed over the box . . . there was a baby," Aramis paused again clearly distressed about what he was trying to say. He shook his head and put his hand to his brow, pinching the bridge of his nose and squinting his eyes shut as if he didn't want to see the memory he was sharing, "I couldn't help it . . . the Dauphin was so sick, my heart so filled with worry . . . it was just a moment," the words were coming out in a rush now, "a moment of distraction and I lost my focus. Five innocent people are dead because of me. Porthos wounded. The mission a failure. Treville disgraced. I failed my duty as a musketeer in every possible way." Aramis's voice shook and Athos realized Aramis was struggling to hold back deep emotions.
"We are none of us perfect," Athos said simply, "even you, my friend, are prone to error."
"This was not just a mistake!" Aramis hissed, raising his face to meet Athos's gaze, eyes shining with unshed tears, "I put myself, my feelings, before my duty, before my friends, before . . ." he trailed off, biting his lip.
"You let your feelings rule you for just an instant, and yes, there were consequences, but do you truly think you can force yourself to feel any differently?" Athos asked, his own deep pain lacing his voice. "Because if there is some way, you must tell me, as everything I have tried has led me back to the bottom of a wine bottle."
"I can't be that forgiving of myself," Aramis said, "The consequences are too dire, the stakes too high. I know you struggle, but I don't think it is quite the same thing."
"It's not?" Athos answered, raising an eyebrow, and feeling his throat tighten. "My feelings overcame me in an alley in Paris last year and now we are forced to look at the consequences of my inaction keep company with the King of France. Do not think I do not know how you feel."
Athos surprised himself at his own candor, but this was Aramis, and there were no secrets, not truly, left between either of them now. Still, to say it bore an emotional price but one Athos was willing to pay for the sake of his friend's well-being. Athos watched as his words landed, the anger dissipating from his friend's face, only to be replaced by a look of sorrow.
"I'm sorry, mon ami," Aramis breathed, reaching out to put a hand on Athos's arm, "I didn't mean . . . that was inappropriate to say." Athos acknowledged his friend's apology with a slight dip of his head. Aramis had not truly hurt him with his words, but Athos knew his friend needed to feel forgiven anyway. Aramis let his hand fall from Athos's arm and he again ran it over his face. Something more was troubling him. Athos waited, knowing his friend would speak when ready.
"The Dauphin's illness caused me . . . great consternation," Aramis said softly, his voice thick with emotion. "I did not anticipate I would be so . . . affected." Aramis took a deep breath, "I have been fighting myself, denying how I have felt, pretending to myself that I could just let him go, to just forget about it as you have so wisely told me to do. I thought I was in control, but no matter how much I try, I will not be able to stop loving them."
"Aramis," Athos's voice held a note of warning, but Aramis shook his head and raised a hand, not wanting to be interrupted.
"I love them, but I will do nothing foolish. They are not mine to love," Aramis said, strength creeping into his voice. He looked directly at Athos, determination brightening his dark eyes, "They belong to France. And I swear to you, I give them freely, with no reservation. It is my own selfishness that I must overcome. I will not let my love for them bring them any harm. Nor will I allow my feelings to cause me distraction again. My duty is clear now and every action I take as a musketeer is to protect France, and they, they are France. There is no conflict in my soul anymore."
"Then why are you still so troubled, mon ami?" Athos asked tenderly.
"Because it is so hard," Aramis answered tears filling his eyes, "So very hard to let them go."
They stopped for lunch at a large clearing with easy access to the main road through the forest. It was a fine day and the Queen had a blanket spread on the ground so that she and her two ladies could enjoy the sun breaking through the trees. They passed the Dauphin between them, cooing and laughing with the baby as a group of content women are wont to do. The happy scene even brought a ghost of a smile to Athos's lips as he watched them fuss over the little prince.
Athos glanced over at Aramis standing near their horses. He had been rummaging for something in their saddlebags, but now he stood as a statue, paused in his forgotten task. His attention was drawn to the domestic scene on the blanket in the clearing as well but his eyes showed nothing but sorrow. His right hand absentmindedly rubbed at his chest, as if his very heart was paining him.
Privy to Aramis's secret, Athos had avoided all conversation about it with the marksman mostly in an effort to protect them both from the gallows. No matter the circumstances, it was treason and as they were the only witnesses to the event, as long as they never spoke of it, it could be like it had never happened. Aramis loved often and easily, although not frivolously, and Athos had assumed another light would capture his heart. The baby was definitely a complication, but for all Athos knew perhaps not the first such Aramis had managed. But after their conversation this morning, he realized he had not truly seen his brother's heart, maybe because he didn't want to. Every path on this route lead to either misery or death and Athos had a fierce need to protect his friend from both. His instinct all along had been to keep Aramis away from the Queen and the Dauphin lest some casual exchange provoke suspicions, but now Athos was even more certain his course of action was correct. Aramis was suffering far more than he had suspected and proximity to the royal family only deepened it. Athos redirected his gaze, suddenly feeling wrong to be witnessing Aramis's struggles. His brother was suffering and at the very least Athos could leave him with his dignity.
With the Queen and Constance to help look after the Dauphin, the Governess was free to turn her attention elsewhere. Athos could not help but notice her eyes following the marksman's every move, attempting to catch him alone when he was tending the horses, or getting food from his saddlebags. Aramis for his part did not seem surprised by her attention but was not entirely comfortable with it either. He finally invited her to walk with him to the stream to refill the canteens, and when they returned a few minutes later, the lady looked flushed but seemed satisfied to rejoin her companions.
Aramis joined Athos where he sat with his back to a tree, just far enough away to keep an eye on the comings and goings around the camp. Athos had forced the red guard to post two sentries, but he was not so certain they were being all that vigilant. Athos preferred a spot where he too could keep watch.
"It seems the Governess has chosen to take on another charge," Athos said flatly, although a slight smile played on his lips. He reached out a hand for one of the apples Aramis had retrieved from their saddlebags.
"Perhaps a lapse of judgment on her part," Aramis replied, handing Athos the apple, "A mistake I think we will need to rectify soon," he added.
Before Athos could press the matter further, something changed in Aramis's demeanor. He stood straight up, eyes quickly scanning the forest, head slightly cocked as if listening for something. Athos scrambled quickly to his feet.
"What?" Athos whispered, standing near the marksman.
"Something is not right," Aramis whispered back, "I heard . . ." his voice broke off and he squinted his eyes, looking intensely at something in the forest. Four ravens suddenly took wing, squawking as they pushed past the treetops. Athos trailed his eyes back to where they had come from. A glint of something caught his attention, metal in the sunlight.
"Ambush!" Aramis yelled beside him, hands already reaching for the pistols strapped to his chest.
"To the Queen!" Athos called out, drawing pistol and rapier and running to the center of the clearing.
All hell broke loose as pistols fired from all directions, the women screamed and men ran from the forest. The red guard scrambled to get hands to weapons and following Athos's lead formed a circle around the women and the Dauphin.
"Get them to the carriage!" Athos shouted as he engaged the first attacker to come within his range. Athos took in the rough clothing, the cheap sword, and the clumsy attack before skewering the man through the gut. As he pulled out his sword, two more stepped up to take the first's place. These were not trained men, but there were lots of them.
Athos looked for Aramis and found him fighting with rapier and main gauche to clear a path for them to the carriage. Other of the red guard fought for control of the horses. More pistol fire came from the woods as the attackers reloaded and the man to Athos's left fell, opening him up for a third attacker to rush toward him with a raised club. Suddenly a sword thrust came from almost behind him and he glanced quickly to see that Constance had picked up a blade. Her thrust was true and the man with the club fell to the ground. Picking up her skirts in her other hand Constance neatly stepped over him and brandished the blade toward the next attacker. Athos had no time to remark on her swordsmanship as the next assailant charged toward him. Another volley of pistol fire brought down more of their men.
It took Athos a bit to get the red guard to respond, but finally he sent men into the woods to take out the shooters. Athos was not sure if there were enough of them left to get the Queen and the Dauphin into the carriage but he was reassured again by the presence of Aramis, fighting like a very demon from Hell, bodies piling up at his feet. Athos broke from the circle and joined him, the two of them fighting in concert and forcing the attackers away from the carriage. Finally, the door was clear and Aramis helped the Queen, who was clutching the Dauphin, up the step. As she started inside, hands grabbed her and pulled her down from the step. With a desperate cry, she thrust the baby prince into Aramis's arms as she screamed and struggled against the men who were dragging her off.
Holding the Dauphin in his arms, Aramis could not follow the Queen, nor press on the attack. His first responsibility was to get the baby to safety.
"Athos!" he bellowed, desperation tinging his voice as he kicked one man in the stomach and struggled to turn his body to shield the Dauphin from another man. A sharp pain sliced through his side, but he did not relinquish his hold on the little prince. Another strike set his shoulder on fire and forced Aramis to his knees. He considered getting under the carriage, but with the horses spooked and bucking it was not safe to risk being run over by the massive wheels. Aramis was running out of options but then Athos was there, hauling him up to his feet and shoving him through the carriage door. He was concerned for the baby but managed to stop his momentum with a shoulder to the wall. Constance and Margarite stumbled into the carriage after him, Constance managing to lay down the sword before she accidentally impaled Aramis. Margarite flung herself to the floor, sobbing with her hands fisted in Constance's skirts. Scared but level-headed as ever, Constance reached immediately for the Dauphin, clutching him protectively to her chest. Her eyes were wild and blood streaked her cheek.
"Are you alright?" Aramis asked, breathing heavily as he reached to his belt for his spent pistol.
"I'm fine." She answered, only a slight quaver to her voice belying her fear, "The Queen . . ." she started, but Aramis cut her off.
"I know," he said, glancing up at her worried face "I'll get her back." His hands had not stopped moving as he loaded his pistol even while looking at Constance. Finished, he flipped it in his hand and held it out to her "You know how to use this, yes?" he asked.
Constance took the pistol with a steady hand and pulled back the hammer. "Yes," she answered confidently.
"Good," Aramis said, gently pushing the muzzle of the gun away from his torso and toward the door of the carriage, "Shoot anyone that comes in here that isn't Athos."
"Margarite," Aramis looked down to the woman cowering on the floor of the carriage while continuing to load his second pistol. "You are alright. Stay in the carriage. Stay with Constance." She whimpered and nodded, pressing closer to the other woman. He considered handing her the gun but thought better and rather boldly tucked the second pistol into Constance's belt.
"Aramis, you need that," Constance said confused.
"You need it," he said, cupping her cheek in his hand, "Protect the Dauphin. Don't let anything happen to him." He surprised himself, and her, by planting a chaste kiss on her forehead. "Or you. And don't worry, I'm sure Athos will be right behind me and will have the good sense to bring his pistols."
With that he was out the door of the carriage, pushing his way through the remaining men fighting on the other side and whistling for his horse. The black Friesian heard the call and found her rider at the edge of the skirmish. Battle trained, it hardly fazed her to join him in a melee. Aramis mounted up and they flew into the forest, following the narrow track the attackers had taken with the Queen.
With the Dauphin confined within the relative safety of the carriage, it did not take long for the remaining red guard, under Athos's direction, to re-group and drive off the last of the attackers. Whether it was because they were shaken by the severity of the battle or because their own Lieutenant had been killed in the first volley of gunfire, they were willing to follow Athos's cool and confident leadership as if he wasn't a despised musketeer. The picnic spot, so idyllic earlier, was now a graveyard, bodies strewn across the clearing like so many rocks on the shore of a bloody ocean. The numbers that had been sent against them were overwhelming. This had been well planned and the only saving grace that although there were many attackers, they were by and large unskilled. Had the better-trained musketeer regiment been in escort instead of the red guard, the fight would not have been this close despite the size of the unit.
As it was, Athos had no time to ponder the implications of the attack as his first duty was to ensure the safety of the Dauphin and the Queen. He ordered the men to collect the weapons on the field, reload pistols and get mounted. They had to continue to Fontainebleau in all haste. Pausing a moment to see that his instructions were being followed, Athos mounted the step to the carriage and opened the door. He was met with the barrel of a pistol pressed to his temple. He froze on the spot, raising his hands slightly, palms upturned to show he was not a threat.
"Athos," Constance breathed in relief, immediately lowering the weapon and taking a step back. Athos too released a deep exhale, realizing he was lucky that the weapon had been in the hand of the more steadfast Constance than the near-hysterical governess who was on the floor of the carriage, the crying Dauphin held tightly to her chest.
"Aramis?" he said, his single word and raised brow a question directed to Constance.
"He went after the Queen," Constance said, uncocking the pistol and slipping it back into her belt beside the other one.
"Where?" Athos pressed, not considering the impact of his tone on the women. Luckily, it did not seem to faze Constance. Not much really ever did.
"He went out the other side of the carriage," she answered, "East. I think there's a track that way toward a ruined church. We have stopped there on previous trips, it's not far." Athos had started reloading his weapons as she was speaking, replacing the pistols on their holsters and returning his blades to their proper sheaths.
"How many men?" he asked, sparing her a quick glance.
Constance swallowed, gazing slightly off to try to capture the memory. "Four or five, I think." She finally replied. "One of them had the Queen on his horse. Athos, if they. . ." Constance trailed off, biting back a small sob.
Athos paused in what he was doing, putting a hand on her arm and gently giving her a reassuring squeeze, "Aramis will let no harm befall the Queen."
"But he is outnumbered and he has no weapons," she continued, lip trembling.
"He has his blades and his wits, and that is plenty for Aramis," Athos answered with more confidence than he truly had. He also knew Aramis was wounded, had seen him fall beneath a strike to his shoulder. He had to get to him quickly. He dropped his hand and returned to the preparation of his weapons, his voice full of authority, "Get yourselves settled, we must get the Dauphin to the palace and this will not be a comfortable ride."
Constance nodded, already moving to organize the pillows and throws to help cushion them during what was sure to be a frantic dash through the forest track.
"D'Artagnan and a complement of musketeers should catch up soon," his words caused Constance to pause in her work, and Athos could not miss the hope and tenderness that flashed across her face at the mention of the young Musketeer. "Tell him about the Queen. As soon as we get the carriage underway, I'm going after them."
It was not difficult for Athos to follow the trail, nor to notice the signs when a group of horses had veered off on a smaller track. Less than half an hour after he had left the road he came across the ruined boundary wall of the church Constance had spoken of. He pulled up his horse and dismounted, leading him into some of the thicker scrub of the forest where he would be better concealed. He peered over the wall, seeing nothing but overgrown orchards and a disused graveyard leading up to the abandoned chapel. It was mostly intact, but sections of the wall were blackened and Athos knew that fire had ravaged through the building at some point. There were no signs of life, but Athos thought he caught the sound of a horse whinnying in the distance. His mount must have heard it too as he nickered and stamped in response.
Athos made his way cautiously to the chapel, circling around toward what would have been a side entrance and in the direction of the horses. Five beasts were tied off and Aramis's black Friesian was several paces off as well. Athos gave a whistle and the Friesian perked her ears and came to him in a trot, as she was trained to do. The other horses were displeased with this new one, but their agitation was not enough to draw further attention. Athos quickly checked the horse, noting it was not injured, but also noting that Aramis's arquebus was still in the holster. Not surprisingly his friend had chosen stealth over power. It was a bad sign though that Aramis's mount was still here – that meant the musketeer must still be inside, leaving Athos no clue to as his circumstances. Even more disturbing was the amount of blood on Aramis's saddle. The marksman may have been more gravely wounded then Athos first suspected.
Dagger in hand, Athos made his way into the ruins. He found the first body, it's throat neatly slit, just inside the vestibule. The second was at the foot of a small staircase leading up to the remains of a squat tower. Athos assumed both were the work of Aramis, but where was he now? Athos spared a moment to make sure the main section of the chapel was empty and then carefully made his way up the stairs. He noted blood on the steps and hoped it belonged to someone other than the marksman.
The third body was laid out at the top of the stairs and from the looks of it, it had been a vicious struggle. Bloody boot prints were scattered over the landing and Aramis's main gauche was still protruding from the man's neck. Athos caught the muffled sound of raised voices coming from behind the half-open doorway at the other side of the landing. With extreme care, Athos shifted forward and silently pulled Aramis's weapon from the bloody corpse. Then he carefully made his way across the landing, pressing himself flat next to the partially open door and peering through the opening as best he could.
He could just catch the profile of a big man in torn and dirty leathers facing off with someone toward the back of the room that was out of his line of sight.
"This isn't a good idea," the man's voice was shrill, a note of fear mixed with his defiance. "We weren't supposed to hurt anyone! Especially her," he continued, gesturing wildly to his left "It was just to scare them!"
"I don't care what you were supposed to do," the answering voice was deeper, older but still out of sight of Athos, "There is more at stake here than your petty politics. The people are tired of this Spanish whore on the throne. It's time we did something about it. I'm not about to let this opportunity pass by."
"Dammit, Javier!" the big man raked a hand through his hair, "Why do you always have to escalate things! I needed a handful of men to stage a fake ambush and you bring half an army and kidnap the Queen of France!" The man shook his head shifting his body away from the man he was speaking to and opening up more of the room to Athos's view. Schooled soldier as he was, he didn't release the gasp that pushed against his lips as he took stock of the rest of the room.
Beyond the younger man, opposite from the door, the Queen was seated, her arms bound to the chair by a twist of rope around her wrists. She seemed unharmed, her lips pressed tightly together and her blue eyes wide with fear. Face down at her feet lay Aramis in a limp heap on the floor. Athos's heart caught in his chest at the stillness of the musketeer, no sign to show him if he was alive or dead. As Athos considered his options the Queen caught sight of him and her mouth opened in a small "O". He put his finger to his lips and gave a slight shake of his head. Her eyes widened but she closed her mouth and swallowed, regaining what she could of her composure.
"How are we going to get out of this," the big man nearly whined, his voice laced with worry.
"You are a fool, brother," Javier intoned, his voice retaining confidence and control. Athos immediately identified him as the more dangerous one. "We are heroes, not criminals. Emilie of Duras is making her way to Paris, and we will have seats by her side when we hand the bitch over. France will be purged of the Spanish taint."
"Who? What are you talking about?" the other man shouted, "You're insane." Even further agitated, the man started pacing frantically, running his hands through his hair and gesturing wildly as he yelled at his brother. "You and your political causes have gone too far this time! You kidnapped the Queen of France! We are going to hang!"
"Not us, her!" Javier's reply was icy and determined, "She will die twitching at the end of a noose on the steps of the Louvre by the time I am done with her."
"I want nothing to do with this insanity," his brother cried.
"It's too late, Matthieu, you are already involved. You are here and she has seen you, you attacked that musketeer, do you think you will just walk away now?" Athos could hear the derision in Javier's voice goading his younger brother, "No, you are in this and you will see it through. It's for the good of France we do this"
Javier's words stopped the younger man from pacing. He turned again to his brother, face a clouded mask of fear and frustration.
"Pull yourself together. We have to get out of here. Get the horses ready," Javier commanded.
"What about him?" Matthieu gestured toward Aramis.
"Since it looks like none of his companions followed him, we don't need him anymore. We'll kill him if he is not dead already," and Javier finally walked into Athos's line of sight to give a kick to the prone marksmen. All hell broke loose.
As Javier planted his booted foot into Aramis's side, the marksman suddenly twisted and caught the man by the ankle, bringing him down hard on his back. Aramis scrambled to press the attack, pushing himself up to his knees and reaching for the weapons on the man's belt. The Queen screamed as Matthieu moved to help his brother, only to be tackled to the ground by Athos, flinging himself through the door. Matthieu was big enough that it was almost like wrestling with Porthos, only luckily for Athos he was not as skilled. They struggled and rolled on the floor, each trying to gain the upper hand. Athos was finally able to get an opening and struck with Aramis's blade into the big man's back as the Queen screamed Aramis's name. Pushing the big man off him Athos fluidly rolled to his feet, drawing his pistol and cocking it as he rose.
To his left, the Queen was struggling against the ropes that held her to the chair, but before him stood Javier, holding Aramis against him with a hand fisted in Aramis's hair and a pistol shoved under his chin. The marksman's head was pulled back against his captor's and a trail of blood trickled from his temple and down his pale cheek. Aramis's eyes were squinted shut and his breathing was shallow, but he seemed to be on his feet enough to make an effective human shield. Athos aimed his pistol at Javier, but he knew he had no shot.
"Drop your weapon unless you want to see his brains blown all over this room," Javier sneered at him.
Outwardly, Athos remained calm, but inside it was all he could do to quell the panic rising in him. It had taken a mere moment for his keen tactical mind to assess the situation and there wasn't a scenario that didn't end with either Aramis or the Queen dead. His mind worked frantically looking for a way to end the stalemate.
"Majesty, are you injured?" Athos said calmly, taking another small step closer to Javier and Aramis, hoping to find an opening.
"I am unharmed," her voice was stately but held a slight tremor to it, "And I will live through this to see that man hang, I promise," she added with a steely confidence that surprised Athos.
"Shut up, Spanish whore," Javier flicked his eyes toward her as he spat his reply and Athos advanced another step.
"I will see to it personally, Majesty," Athos responded coldly stepping closer again. Javier was getting more agitated, eyes straying from the Queen to Athos, the pistol in his hand starting to slip slightly. "It will be a pleasure to send this madman to Hell after his brother," Athos baited again as he inched forward.
Javier suddenly tensed, realizing what Athos was doing. He pulled back further on Aramis's hair, exposing even more of his neck and firmly pressing the muzzle of the pistol into the soft flesh beneath his skin. The marksman let out a low moan as Javier cocked the pistol.
"Not one more step." Javier's voice was cold, his eyes murderous. Athos froze, realizing he had played this tactic as far as he could and still not sure of a clean shot on Javier. But he did not lower his pistol.
"Athos," Aramis's voice was just above a whisper, slipping through his shallow breaths. Aramis's eyes were open and slightly dazed, his face pinched from the pain of his wounds.
"Lower your weapon," Javier demanded, pressing harder with the pistol and eliciting another small whimper from Aramis. Athos gave a slight cock to his head but remained frozen, pistol raised, eye searching for a clear shot to Javier.
"Athos, you're close enough," Aramis softly begged, his brown eyes pleading to Athos more strongly than words from his mouth ever could.
Javier sneered, "Listen to him. Unless you want him dead."
But Athos's eyes widened as he realized what Javier had misunderstood, what Aramis, the expert shooter, had noticed. Understood between one heartbeat and the next what his brother was asking of him. He felt his breathing quicken and a tremor ran up his spine. Aramis was asking the unthinkable. At this proximity, he did have a shot, but it was by letting the lead ball rip through Aramis's body first.
Athos gave a slight shake of his head. No, he answered his brother, he could not do this. With the wounds and blood loss Aramis were already suffering there was virtually no chance he could survive a gunshot wound, and that was even if Athos could manage a true enough shot not to hit a vital organ. Only Aramis had the skill to even consider it. No. Athos's eyes broke from Aramis's, searching the room again for some other option he had overlooked.
"If you kill me," Aramis breathed up at his captor, "nothing will stop him from killing you. You are already dead." Aramis broke off in a pained wince as his captor shifted the pistol yet again.
"Good point." Javier smiled coldly and in one swift motion, he brought the weapon to bear on the Queen.
Athos felt his chest tighten, Aramis had just made the choice for him. Brother, Athos breathed but no sound actually came out. He found Aramis's eyes, full of pleading and sorrow, begging him to do what he must. Athos spared himself a long blink, eyes stinging with unshed tears against his closed lids. When he opened them again the gaze he gave Aramis was soft and fond. In their unspoken language Athos was telling Aramis he would do what he must. Athos could see relief play across Aramis's face as he let out a small exhale and shifted against Javier.
Javier brought him up short by a yank to his hair. "Move again and she is dead." Javier turned his attention back to Athos but left the gun trained on the Queen, "This is the last time I will tell you to lay down your pistol."
Ice ran through Athos's veins. This would go his way, not Javier's.
"Shooting her will not get you what you want. I will still be here and after I kill you, I will make sure the Queen is a martyr to France, and that the people know she sacrificed her life to save the Dauphin." Athos noted Javier's eyes widen and his jaw tightened when he mentioned the Dauphin so he pressed on, "Yes, the Dauphin lives. Martyring his mother will ensure he is beloved by the people. You cannot win as long as I am here to stop you."
"Enough!" Javier roared, moving to shift his aim from the Queen toward Athos. It was just what Athos had been anticipating and as soon as Javier began to move his pistol away from the Queen, he took the shot. The sound was immediately followed by a second from Javier's gun but as Athos had hoped, it flew harmlessly between himself and the Queen.
Time froze as the sound of the gunshots echoed through the room. Athos watched in horror at the red stain blossoming just below Aramis's right shoulder before the marksman slumped from Javier's grip and fell bonelessly to the floor. Javier staggered backward, a corresponding wound to his chest, eyes wide in pain and shock. Athos closed the small distance between them in three strides, pulling his main gauche from its sheath at his back and pressing it to Javier's neck in one gesture. Athos's eyes held no mercy or remorse as he slid the blade across the madman's throat. Javier raised his hands to his neck, trying to stop his life's blood from pouring from his body. He fell to his knees, gurgling through his last breaths. Athos spared him no more attention, as he moved to swiftly cut the ropes that bound the trembling Queen to the chair.
"Can you ride? There are horses below," Athos's voice was thick with emotion. He was surprised he could even speak.
The Queen slipped from the chair to her knees as soon as she was free. "Aramis," she sobbed reaching for his body.
"Majesty," Athos's voice took on a tone of command and he gripped the Queen by the arm and gave her a small shake, "You must go. You must get to safety. Do not let his sacrifice be for nothing," Athos choked out, his voice cracking. She turned a tear-streaked face to Athos, blue eyes pleading with him not to force her away but Athos was unrelenting, "Majesty, you cannot be found with him. Please," he begged.
The Queen took one last glance at the prone musketeer and then nodded her head, holding back her sobs. She gave Athos's arm a soft squeeze, then gathered her skirts and ran from the room. Athos knew he should follow her, to see her to safety, but he had pushed himself as far as he was capable. He could not leave his brother's side.
Athos quickly shifted himself next to Aramis who lay curled on his side and looking every bit like he might if he were simply asleep. Athos rolled him onto his back, pressing his fingers to Aramis's neck and searching for a pulse.
He had meant to hit higher, in the fleshy part of Aramis's shoulder where it was pressed against Javier's neck, but even as he took aim he knew that he was just not a good enough marksman to make the shot. When he pulled the trigger, it was in full knowledge that he may very well be executing his brother in order to save the queen. The shot had hit low, sending the ball into Aramis's right breast, and most likely through a lung. Athos did not expect Aramis to be alive, but the soldier him in said he must make every attempt to save his comrade even if the brother in him was too overwhelmed with guilt and sorrow to believe there was even a chance.
Athos held his breath and time seemed to stretch again. He closed his eyes, shutting out everything but the hope to feel the beat of Aramis's heart beneath his searching fingers.
A thrum bounced against his fingertips. So softly, it might have been Athos's imagination, until it happened again. It was slow, but it was a steady rhythm. Athos let out a small cry of relief then immediately moved to check the damage.
He worked urgently but carefully to undo Aramis's doublet and get to the bullet wound, biting hard on his bottom lip to choke back his emotions. The thread that anchored Aramis to the living was so thin that Athos thought any care for his brother would as easily kill him as it would help him. He pulled the doublet open finally and then sliced through Aramis's shirt with his dagger. The chest wound was a small hole but blood poured freely. Athos had nothing to hand, so took a portion of Aramis's ruined shirt to press against the wound. He knew there was an exit wound too, and that Aramis had also been stabbed in the other shoulder in the earlier skirmish. What he had not expected was the bloody gash along Aramis's side that was sluggishly oozing blood as well. The bandages were in the saddlebags but even if he had them available Athos couldn't shift his hand from the fresh gunshot wound to tend some other injury.
With no supplies and no help, a rare feeling of helplessness captured Athos as he watched his brother slowly bleeding to death beneath his hands. He swallowed thickly and placed one of his hands on the top of Aramis's head, gently smoothing back the damp, unruly curls.
"Aramis," he whispered, his voice low and hoarse with emotion. He hoped Aramis would open his eyes, would know that he did not leave this world alone but had his brother by his side, but there was no response. He thought it might be for the best. That Aramis could escape this earth without the painful torment of his injuries – or have his murderer be the last face he saw. Athos bowed his head and while he did not have a God he believed in, he asked Aramis's God to see him gently home.
Voices sounded from below, and booted feet clamored up the stairs, pulling Athos from his vigil. Athos knew he should draw his remaining pistol and be ready to defend himself but he couldn't, not willing to move his hands from Aramis even if it meant he too would take his last breath in this room.
It was D'Artagnan who burst into the room, pistol in hand, to find Athos bowed over the prone form of Aramis, blood pooling around them.
"Here!" D'Artagnan yelled over his shoulder, then moved swiftly to kneel at Aramis's other side. "Athos," D'Artagnan said, panting still from his frantic run up the stairs. "Athos, what? Is he . . ."
Athos heard him, but it took great effort on his part to move his attention from Aramis. But here was another brother and he knew he could not deny him. He looked up to meet D'Artagnan's panicked gaze just as Porthos limped his way into the room.
The big man stopped short at the sight before him, leaning heavily into the doorframe as if his legs refused to carry him further. "Aramis . . ." the husky voice choked out, more a question than anything else.
"I shot him," Athos confessed, grief and guilt surging through his chest. "I shot him," he repeated. He couldn't stop saying it as tears began to track down his cheeks.
D'Artagnan's hands were moving over Aramis now, finding the other wounds, pressing his hands to the gash in his side, calling to others for help and to bring bandages but Athos was finding it difficult to hear him. He felt like he was receding, slipping out of this world as surely as Aramis was slipping away. He couldn't hear D'Artagnan anymore, didn't resist the hands that pulled him from his brother. Athos kept his eyes fixed on the marksman's pale, still face until finally it was blocked from view by two others who had joined D'Artagnan by Aramis's side. Athos felt his head spin and the world narrowed to a thin channel. He didn't feel the strong arms that caught him as he finally plunged into blackness.
It did not take long for Athos to regain consciousness. He let Porthos clean and bind the unnoticed gash to his head that he must have sustained in the fight with Javier. It had probably contributed to him passing out. Porthos said nothing as he worked, but Athos could see his clenched jaw and angry worried eyes as he glanced distractedly to where D'Artagnan, Joubert, and Clemente were huddled over Aramis. Now and again snatches of their conversation reached Athos, but he didn't react, choosing to hide his tumultuous emotions behind his practiced mask of indifference. Athos sensed that Porthos was angry and had questions, just as he knew that Porthos must sense that Athos wanted to be left alone. Porthos had wanted to be by Aramis's side, but D'Artagnan had gently pushed him off – his concerned hovering was not helping Clemente and Joubert's concentration and Porthos's skills as a field medic were too rough to be of any real help. So they stood together, shoulder to shoulder, waiting in a solidarity deeper than their unspoken discomfort to see if Aramis would live or die.
Aramis's wounds were so grave that it took three of them to tend him. Joubert took the lead, as he was apprenticed to Dr. Lamay, and D'Artagnan's steady hands were an asset with all of the sewing they had to do. They cleaned, sutured and bandaged his hurts but throughout the painful process, Aramis remained unconscious. He was so still that D'Artagnan more than once stopped to press his fingers against Aramis's neck or wrist, waiting to find the soft beat of his pulse before he could continue.
They decided they couldn't move him far and certainly he couldn't travel on horseback. D'Artagnan brought up a blanket and they carefully rolled Aramis on his side to slide the blanket beneath him. They picked up the four corners and slowly made their way down the stairs and across the vestibule of the church to an anteroom that had likely been the priest's dressing antechambers. It had a small fireplace and Porthos had already gotten a warm blaze started and laid a pallet of blankets by the hearth. The Musketeers placed their precious burden carefully then D'Artagnan covered Aramis with two of their blue cloaks. Aramis was chilled from loss of blood, his face clammy and pale. When D'Artagnan sent the others on to Fontainebleau with word that he, Athos and Porthos were staying behind with Aramis, the musketeer still had not regained consciousness.
Athos sat now on the floor, his back to the arched columns of the fireplace, waiting with the others to know if they would be taking their brother home or burying him the graveyard beyond the wall. Porthos sat cross-legged by Aramis's side, his sword lying across his lap, the cleaning cloth forgotten in his hand. D'Artagnan had been pacing but then decided to collect more firewood. It would be a long vigil and D'Artagnan needed something to do other than sit and brood. Athos and Porthos sat in a silence disturbed only by the crackle and pop of the fire.
"Tell me," Porthos's gruff voice broke the stillness.
Athos took a deep breath and let out a sigh then cocked his head and raised his eyes to meet Porthos's dark stare. Athos knew full well what Porthos wanted to know. He just wasn't sure how to tell him.
"The Queen's life was at risk," Athos started, "I had no choice."
"No choice but to shoot Aramis?" Porthos's voice was low, deep anger coloring every syllable. "Tell me how that could even have been a possibility."
Athos pursed his lips and looked away. There was no way to answer that without betraying Aramis's secret, a secret that was not his to tell as long as Aramis drew breath. Even then, to share what he knew would put Porthos at risk of the gallows too if the truth were ever to come to light. Porthos deserved an answer but there was none Athos could give. Lost in his tortured thoughts, Athos did not realize Porthos had moved until he was hauling Athos up to his feet. The big man grabbed him by the doublet and slammed his back against the wall.
"Tell me," he breathed, "Tell me how you could have thought in any way that this was the answer," Porthos tightened his grip and gave Athos a shake, "Tell me why I should still call you brother," he growled.
Athos swallowed. Porthos deserved better than his silence and Athos needed desperately to tell someone what had happened. He just hoped their brotherhood would be strong enough to bear it.
"He asked me to," Athos said, his voice so soft he was not sure he spoke out loud. He could see Porthos's eyes widen, the shock and disbelief on his face. The big man shook his head, denying the words but Athos continued, his voice gaining in strength, "He begged me to, Porthos, I swear it. He offered his life for his Queen and his country and begged me to take the shot," Athos's voice cracked, choking on his grief, "How could I deny him knowing he could not live with the outcome if I did not?"
"Why?" Porthos nearly sobbed, "Why would he say that?"
"I cannot tell you," Athos moved his hands to grip Porthos by the wrists where he still held him by the doublet, "Please brother, I can't. But know it was the hardest thing I have ever done and I did it because I loved him," Athos couldn't continue. He bowed his head and leaned it against Porthos's chest. He felt tears start to rise and his body trembled in his desire to hold them at bay. Aramis was all but lost to them and Athos did not think he could survive the loss of Porthos too. He might be functioning now but something inside of him was dying.
A soft moan pulled them both back to the present.
Swiftly the two men moved to kneel beside Aramis, one on either side. Porthos placed one hand on Aramis's cheek and clutched the marksman's hand with the other. "Aramis," he whispered, lightly tapping his cheek, "Aramis" he repeated again. The marksman moaned again, shifting his head away from the offending hand. Porthos spared a glance to Athos, hope shining in his eyes, "Aramis," the big man insisted.
With another moan, Aramis's eyes began to flutter beneath his lids. His face became pinched as his mind registered the pain of his injuries. Athos hated to see him suffer but knew if there was any hope to save him Aramis had to wake up at least enough to take medicines and water. Finally, Aramis forced his eyes open, the pupils wide with pain and panic. Porthos immediately soothed him but it wasn't until Athos laid a hand on the marksman's head and called his name that Aramis settled.
"I'll get the water skin and the herbs," Porthos whispered, giving Aramis's hand a reassuring squeeze before relinquishing it and moving toward the fire.
"Athos," Aramis's voice was barely audible. Athos leaned forward, stroking unruly black curls from Aramis's face.
"I'm here," he said, "You are safe. Don't try to talk."
"The Queen?" Aramis whispered.
Athos leaned in closely, his voice pitched for just Aramis to hear, "She is unharmed and with the Dauphin, mon ami. You protected them."
Aramis scrunched his brow then forced his eyes open wider, locking his gaze on Athos with unexpected clarity. He struggled to raise his head inches from the ground, intent on saying something to Athos.
"I'm sorry, brother," he breathed, "I'm so sorry."
"Hush, you have done nothing," Athos said, taking Aramis's hand in his and placing their clasped hands over his heart. Porthos rejoined them but Athos was afraid to break eye contact with Aramis, his hold to consciousness seemed so thin. He noticed Porthos slip his hand behind the marksman's head, gently supporting him.
Aramis's eyes fluttered and the weight of his head fell heavily into Porthos's hand as a tear leaked from beneath his dark lashes. Athos smoothed Aramis's cheek with the pad of his thumb, brushing away the dampness.
"Please forgive me," Aramis's words barely held enough breath to be heard.
"You need not ask," Athos said gently. Across from him, Athos could feel Porthos's rising anger as much as he could feel the warmth of the fire at his back. He looked up at Porthos and the fighter's eyes promised there would be a reckoning. Porthos held the cup of water and herbs to Aramis's lips.
"Drink this," Athos was surprised at how tenderly Porthos spoke when he knew there was rage simmering beneath the surface. "Try to take all of it." Aramis drank without further prompting as Athos continued to smooth his brow.
"Rest, brother," Athos said as Porthos took the empty cup away and gently laid Aramis's head back on the blankets, "We are here and we will see you back to health. Just rest." Whether it was Athos's gentle reassurances or the effect of the herbs, Aramis's face relaxed and he drifted back to sleep without further word. Athos settled back but did not release Aramis's hand. He would watch over his precious brother - no matter the depths of his guilt or the worst of outcomes this time Athos would not run from the consequences of his actions. If death dared to find his brother, it would have to take them both.